Monday, 8 January 2018

I Used To Be A Tech Fanboy

That's me in the naughties ... incredible shrinking tech and the mobile years :)
I used to be a tech fanboy

I'm not sure why but I've been interested, excited and good at tech for as long as I remember and have been lucky enough to have had a career in education technology all my life ... for most of my life my job has been like a hobby - during the earlier years I would have won millions on the lottery and just carried on doing what I was doing ... I was on a mission thinking blue skies and rolling across green fields. 

I used to be a tech fanboy - here is my story and why I have changed.

Mainframe years

I first used computers at school in 1974 using punched cards to program an ICL 1900 mainframe at the University of Kent using Algol 68. The punched cards were input to the mainframe via post and a week later we received our output via post on line printer paper. It was amazing to be able to do this .. for school kids to control a multi-million pound machine at a university .. maybe the equivalent today is when school kids video-conference with Tim Peak in the space station and I hope experiences like this inspires kids today in the same way using a computer inspired me in the 1970s. "May the force be with you".... inspiration is the soft but powerful invisible force in education ... so often ignored by educational managerialism and the obsession with hard data today but more on that later.

I went on to study psychology and anthropology at university and then computing and education for post graduate studies. In computing I worked with an engineer to build a voice controlled robot arm called "big ears" to play chess - I wrote the voce recognition software and the engineer wrote teh mechanical control software. In education my main project was around Ivan Illich's ideas in "Deschooling Society" and the potential for computing in future learning. Combining social science, computer science and education has given me a very different perspective than most of my colleagues in IT and education - most of whom seem to have specialised in one side or the other but not both. Like a fish out of water I would argue the importance social\cultural factors to IT people and to educationalists I would argue about the engineering factors of IT - combining the language to the different audiences is harder than it seems. Over time the common ground for communication between IT and education became the the language of business and management but more on that later.

PC years: the first golden age of IT

I started teaching IT in 1982 - combining IT, social science and education was a real joy and there was real excitement and new developments in all three areas that came together in what I come to think of as the first golden age in education technology during the 1980s. I taught with both mainframes and PCs but in the PC world there was a real revolution going on - there was a Cambrian explosion of diversity ... I remember Apple, Acorn, Atari, RM, Commodore, Sinclair, CP/M, MS-DOS, Wordstar, Wordperfect, Word, Visicalc, Lotus 123, Logistix, Excel, dBase II, GEM, Windows. In the world of teaching there was a revolution going on too - I remember teaching with LOGO, Turtles and the constructionist ideas of Seymour Papert as well as game based learning, lateral thinking, heuristic methods and various non-directive, project and resource based methods. I wrote a PC based Dungeons and Dragons style game that teachers could populate with scenarios to use with numeracy and literacy in game based learning. Way before the Web I wrote a graphical hypertext system I called "Hyperway" that teachers could populate to use for non directive teaching methods .... the logo for my program was a jigsaw piece ... the same style Microsoft used later for Office. I remember participating in inter-department project based schemes and ran one on the local environment involving science, technology, maths, language, performing arts and IT ... scientist and technology made radio sets and we broadcast and received the performance of a script written by the students. Large inter-disciplinary projects like this are so difficult today ... but more of that later.

During the 1980s we didn't have many computers but we did a lot with them. In 1982 I typically had to teach a class of 30 or more with just three BBC micros ... we had to be very skilful in designing activities for small group work for before, during and after using the computers. Through the 1980s and into the early 1990s the number of computers and the number of computer rooms grew steadily. We didn't have IT technicians or any form of IT department and increasing amounts of my time was spent doing IT support work - at first in my spare time but later with greater and greater amounts of remission and in 1993 I was offered the new role of college network manager to look after PCs, software, servers and of course the network. I can't remember how many PCs we had by 1993 but it must have been several hundred and all were networked. The diversity of IT in the 1980s was a challenge to manage and with my IT hat on I started to standardise on Microsoft - the promising new boy on the block for .. well ... everything - network, operating system and applications. People used a variety of applications - the most popular (best of bread) being Wordperfect and Lotus 123 ... I remember challenge of persuading people to change applications and use those from a single supplier. I remember the persuasions necessary for secretaries to switch to Word ... fast touch typists at the time preferred to use keystroke combinations to get things done and didn't want to take their hands off a keyboard to use a mouse thing. Standardisation wasn't in the users best interest but IT support just couldn't manage the number of applications involved and we would be able to move faster if we did less ... in a sense this was the beginning of the end ... but more on that later.

Network and Web Years: the second golden age of IT

Since the earliest days of PCs I had networked them in some way. I networked every computer in every computer room but the local area networks (LANS) were isolated. In the mid 1980s we started connecting our LANs together in a sort of local area internet that I described to college management as a "Total College Network". In 1996 we had the opportunity to connect our college network to the Internet and go "cruising on the super highway" and I took to the Internet like a duck to water. I designed the architecture and support structure that enabled six London colleges to connect their networks to the Internet and the support structure became the JISC London RSC (Regional Support Centre). I set up a college "Cybercentre" with 12 PCs connected to the Internet and enthused to teachers, staff and management to try the Internet and the web and to use it in their life and their work. 

1996 was for me the beginning of the second golden age of education technology - a period that came to fruition at the start of the 21st century and ran through to the mid naugties. It didn't take long to get web services going and by the end of the 1990s we were using email and had staff, student and college web services in operation. Our DIY web services were way ahead of the time and way ahead of what the network could cope with at times ... I remember Christmas 1999 when the college secretariat put a reindeer animated gif on the staff web server and how this brought the wide area network between our sites across west London to a standstill. Our student web service later became known as a VLE and later still an MLE, our staff web service later became known as an "intranet", and our college web service later became known as a college website. Around 1998 I remember switching from Pearl to Microsoft ASP 2.0 and writing web based help-desk pages for departments around the college and introducing the MIS department to the wonders of the programmable web.

I fell in love with the web ... it was a panacea for all the problems mounting from the previous generation of IT - the ever increasing number of complex local programs that had to be installed, secured, maintained, updated and supported. With the web we could have it all ... a single simple local application could give people access to an "infinity" of information and applications anytime, anywhere and from any device ... PC, Mac, Linux and even the early PDA "smartphones" people were using. With the Web clients could be "thin and light" ... web servers could do the heavy lifting. In 1999 I became head of IT systems and shortly afterwards head of IT services and I was on a mission to promote the use of mobile, wireless and web - this was the future and I jumped in feet first ... unplugging and stepping away from a desk and a desktop PC to use only a wireless laptop from 2000 onwards and designing everything for the open web for access anytime, anyplace like Martini :) 

By 2005 we had pervasive Web and WiFi across one of the largest colleges in the UK -  all staff had either their own or a shared wifi laptop\tablet to use for admin and teaching and we had many laptop only teaching environments. This work was featured in a JISC "Vision and Infrastructure" case study "Changing to a Wireless World

"At any point in the building, anywhere I am, everything is instantly accessible to me. As a senior manager, it’s an invaluable tool.” John O’Shea, Division Manager 

By 2007 we had over 5,000 computers and 28,000 users and the Web was not enough.  Local servers to support this scale of IT were increasingly expensive, complicated and numerous - we needed a revolution for IT infrastructure in the same way the web revolutionised the local PCs and software.

That's me in the naugties ... all blue skies and clouds

Social, cloud and mobile years: the third golden age of IT

I started experimenting with "the cloud" in 2006 and started a grass roots college experiment with Google apps in 2007 - when people showed anxiety about cloud apps I simply asked them how long they have been using Webmail like Yahoo, Hotmail or Gmail for.

Just as with networks and the Web I took to the cloud like a duck to water - the Cloud turned computing into Martini ... any time, any where, any device. I used to compare being an IT manager with one of those cabaret acts spinning plates ... spending more and more time running around keeping systems running  - installing, upgrading, securing, patching etc etc ... with the cloud I could focus on the use of IT rather than IT itself.  My vision for local IT infrastructure was server-less,  invest in the network because with the cloud "the network is our computer".

Web, cloud and mobile... "I love it when a plan comes together" - the late naughties was a golden age in IT - it seemed like "the future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed". I was an evangelist for the new era of web 2, cloud and social - leading by example and initiating, supporting and participating in so many projects with teachers and learners .. you can see my video blogs here for example - talking with teachers teachers and students about the new tech and with IT people about the changes to make this happen.

There was an IT revolution happening .. staff and students were bringing their own IT into the college in their bags and their pockets. The 1980s One computer Per Desk and "one computer in every home"  had become one computer in every pocket. Bring Your Own Device was another piece to complete my jigsaw for IT as "the network" .. we could reduce the number of college PCs and eventually simplify IT to just the network - protecting cloud based systems and providing access as needed anytime, anywhere, any device ... we just need a network. With your own device computing can become properly personal - you can install and use whatever applications you want and with just a web browser you can access personal, work and learning systems as needed anytime, anywhere. Web, Cloud, Social, Mobile, BYOD ... the tech revolution could revolutionise the way we do IT and the way we work, learn and play. In 2008 I re-engineered the college network and systems for Web, Cloud, Social, Mobile, BYOD - changing the Internet routing and firewall, installing a new WiFi system with a large scale guest WiFi system and started a large scale shift to cloud applications. 

By 2014 we had several thousand daily users of our guest WiFi network, everyone was on Gmail and we had millions of documents on Google apps. This work was recognised and featured by Google and the national IT press and in 2015 my IT strategy was shortlisted for an Inquirer Tech Hero award

"Martin is a passionate facilitator of projects that explore the potential of new methods and technologies and has been developing an oblique approach to strategy that aims to inspire, facilitate and support holistic IT responses to a new environment where IT is easy, diverse, pervasive, personal, social and connected."

I used to be a tech fanboy
Mainframes, PCs, networks, Internet, Web, Cloud, social, mobile and "tech hero" - I've seen each cycle run its course and lead to the next "big thing". My approach is to look into the future early, distribute it in the present and "make hast slowly" ... getting an early start and making continuous incremental changes rather than big bangs. The future is always ... the future - it is always out of reach and something to strive for and technology never stops trying to take us there. However, during the mid 2010s the gears of the technology cycle seem to have jammed and we are left standing on the platform waiting for the next big thing, wondering what's going on and watching the chickens come home to roost. We are losing the Internet, losing the Web, social networks are used for mass surveillance, fake new and lies, smartphones are used to hijack our minds and the security of our devices and systems is like going to sea in a sieve ... leaking our privacy and letting in waves of hacking and malware.
Rather than cycling to the future, technology is a treadmill recycling history into the present.

That's me in 1976 holding Balzac's "Lost Illusions"

Lost Illusions

I have always looked to technology to help people ... to give them freedom and to make their life, work and play better but technology doesn't happen in isolation .... it is part of human social, cultural and economic context. The leading edge of technology is always refreshing and exciting ... rolling across "green fields" under "blue skies" in a land of milk and honey but the revolution always comes full circle when it "crosses the chasm" to the real world of politics and power. Using technology becomes a faustian pact promising freedom and equality when in fact it seems to do the opposite - used for manipulation and control to reinforce wealth and power and widen inequality. At best digital technology helps a yuppie have a nice day and sell you stuff you don't need, at worst it becomes a utility for control and management. Yes, we have all this amazing access to an infinity of information to binge on but this "fast food" is unhealthy - polluted by noise, lies and fakery and pushing our buttons for attention it threatens our physical and mental health and wellbeing ... is the quality of our lives really any better?

Techno determinists are treated like prophets but their prophecies are more about profits ... technology is not a charity .. it is created by companies with an agenda and a profit in mind. I am concerned about the tech capture and technologisation of everything - shifting and centralising power and capital to tech capitalists. I've seen this in education for example ... where teachers might once have created used and "owned" their own teaching resources like skilled professionals they now operate as part of a managed learning environment quality and control surveillance machine ready to turn teachers into semi-skilled labourers ripe for automation and replacement by robots in some not too distant edtech capture drive for productivity and results. I think about the opportunity cost and the opportunities lost as so much educational capital gets sunk so determined into technology. 

"Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." ~ George Santayana

Yes there always seems hope ... there is always the excitement juggling gadgets riding on the front of a tech cycle but remember that what goes up must come down and there always seems to be a down side or an unintended consequence. I still love riding the front of the tech cycle but I have no illusions any more ... technology alone doesn't change things - people do. 

There is plenty of new tech around: AI, robotics, 3D printing, mixed reality, augmented reality and virtual reality  My current work with inspireNshare is still with technology but its about developing the value of people and focuses on what I call Citizen Tech - simple, friendly accessible and cost effective tech that encourages participation, play, creativity, re-mixing, invention, exploration and experimentation. My aim is to share with and inspire people and like the butterfly effect little things can make a big difference - I've lost my illusions about tech changing the world but it can change people and people can change the world.

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